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January 13, 2014

Rumor Roundup

AL Rotation Rumblings

by Daniel Rathman

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Indians expect to discuss long-term pact with Justin Masterson
With more than five years of service time under his belt, Justin Masterson has one more year of arbitration eligibility left before his first chance to hit the open market. The 28-year-old right-hander took home about $5.7 million in 2013, when he forwent his hearing by agreeing to that salary on January 18, and the Tribe is once again hoping to come to terms with his agent, Randy Rowley.

Masterson has gone year to year to this point in his big-league career, which began when the Red Sox promoted him on April 28, 2008, though he has never actually gone to arbitration. Cleveland Plain-Dealer beat writer Paul Hoynes reported on Friday that the Indians would like to give Masterson his first multi-year guarantee, one that would buy out multiple free-agent seasons.

A solid mid-rotation starter, Masterson is somewhat miscast in the ace role he has been asked to play in Cleveland. He has been worth at least 1.6 wins in three of the past four seasons, but his FIP has fluctuated—from 3.90 in 2010, to 3.32 in 2011, to 4.11 in 2012, to 3.38 in 2013—due to inconsistent walk and home-run rates. Masterson’s strikeout clip was remarkably steady between 2010-2012, coming in between 17.4-17.6 percent each year.

Then, last year, something interesting happened. For the first time in his career, Masterson fanned more than a batter per inning, and his punchout pace spiked to 24.3 percent. Much of the improvement came against left-handed hitters, whom he fanned just 13.5 percent of the time (72 in 532 PA) two years ago and 19.4 percent (96 in 494 PA) in 2013. That’s significant, because glove-side batters have long been a thorn in Masterson’s side—a product of a low, wide release point that gives them a longer look at the ball. Doug Thorburn examined the factors fueling the strikeout hike back in August.

If Masterson could sustain the higher strikeout clip while bringing his walk rate back down to its 2011 level (7.2 percent), he would blossom into the sort of frontline starter the Indians have long sought. The Kingston, Jamaica, native has also proven durable over his first half-decade in the majors, needing only one trip to the disabled list, a three-week stay with a strained ribcage muscle this past September.

Masterson’s clean health record and relative youth could be feathers in his free-agent cap. On the other hand, the Indians hold a trump card—the qualifying offer, which would require Masterson’s next employer to surrender its highest draft pick and might depress his value.

As negotiations between the sides unfold later this month, expect Rowley to keep close tabs on the bidding for Matt Garza and Ervin Santana, two other mercurial starters who are roughly Masterson’s age. Santana is 31, Garza is 30; but Garza—who was traded from the Cubs to the Rangers in July—was not eligible to receive a qualifying offer while Santana rejected one from the Royals.

Hoynes cited an MLBTradeRumors estimate that pegged Masterson’s price tag at $65-85 million over five years. FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal tweeted during the Winter Meetings that general manager Chris Antonetti was open to trade offers for the righty, but those rumors cooled quickly and have not resurfaced.

Rangers moving toward deal with Jerome Williams
For the second consecutive year, a left-handed Rangers starter has come down with an injury long before Opening Day.

Last year, it was Martin Perez, who saw what was supposed to be his first full big-league season cut short by a fractured forearm, which he suffered when struck by a line drive on March 3. Last week, Derek Holland wrecked his knee in a fall at his home, and then underwent surgery to repair torn cartilage. Dallas Morning News writer Gerry Fraley tweeted on Friday that Holland could be out until “mid-season.”

Whether “mid-season” means June, July, or later remains to be seen—but whatever the case may be, Holland’s injury forced general manager Jon Daniels to spring into action. According to SB Nation’s Chris Cotillo, Daniels’ first move might not be a big one: He is currently focused on securing a hitch with former Angels swingman Jerome Williams.

The 32-year-old Williams made 37 appearances for the Halos last year, 25 of them as a starter. He is little more than a replacement-level pitcher who can chew up innings in the event of an injury.

If the season started today, the Rangers’ rotation would be Yu Darvish, Martin Perez, Alexi Ogando, Matt Harrison, and probably either Nick Tepesch or Robbie Ross. Prospects Alex Gonzalez and Luke Jackson could be ready to help later in the year, based on their ETAs in Jason Parkstop 10 list.

Were the Rangers to sign Williams, manager Ron Washington would likely have him compete with Ross and Tepesch for the no. 5 job. Cotillo reported earlier in the week that Neftali Feliz will serve as a reliever in 2014, so he is not an option to fill in for Holland.

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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